If you grew up around insensitive or overbearing people, you probably learned to keep your feelings to yourself. Being around emotionally insensitive people teaches you to bite your tongue and be passive, or else risk their making you feel worse. This can interfere with your ability to be forthright and communicative in your adult relationships. Without these skills, it is hard to speak out as an adult or talk about emotionally intimate matters with partners, friends, or children.
By imagining new patterns of interactions, you can practice speaking up and honestly expressing yourself to anyone who dismisses or disrespects you. Imagined interactions teach your brain what it feels like to be an equal adult with the right to be respected and listened to. Your brain can change itself just by imagining a new kind of interaction, but you have to practice what you want to become. All skill develops from pretending you are competent long before you can do it well.
Imagined interactions are invaluable when someone is absent, deceased, or the relationship is over but still haunts you. In this technique, you sit down with an empty seat nearby—at whatever distance feels comfortable to you—and imagine that the person you want to talk to is sitting there, ready to listen. Imagine they truly want to know how it’s been for you. You tell them plainly and from the heart what you think of their behavior and how it made you feel.
Throughout your talk, keep imagining that your words are magically reaching the heart of that person. See them absorbing everything you say, as they try to understand and stay open toward you. Picture the person’s warm eyes and compassionate facial expression. See them nodding in understanding after you finish each sentence. They are interested in knowing how they made you feel. Imagine they thank you for helping them understand.
Notice how you feel afterwards. Even though it’s an imaginary exercise, many people report a sense of release and calmness, like a circuit has finally been completed. You feel that completion because you have finally acted on feelings that needed to be expressed. It was real to your brain because it heard you say every word out loud.
In order to be emotionally genuine, use only fourth-grade language. Be as choppy and hesitant as you need to be, with no big concepts or sweeping generalizations. You simply make statements of truth that any fourth grader would understand immediately. Keep talking until you really can’t think of another thing to say and all your feelings are emptied out.
In the first step of this exercise, tell the person what he or she did and its effect on you: “When you did that, I felt like this.” To prepare to tell him or her, let yourself fully realize your feelings of hurt, shame, or anger. For example, you might say to your imaginary person, “When you dismissed my problem, I felt ashamed and like I never wanted to confide in you again.”
After sharing your feelings, the second step is to tell your imaginary listener, “And here’s what I think about that.” This is your opportunity to express your values. Would you like the listener’s behavior to be the norm for human interactions? In this step, you are stating how you think people should treat one another. For example, you could tell your imaginary person: “I think it’s wrong for you to shut me down just because you don’t agree. It doesn’t have to make sense to you. All I want you to do is listen, try to understand, and say something to make me feel better. That’s what good relationships are about.” Notice what you feel when you stand up for how you think people should treat one another. Are you beginning to feel a little stronger and less victimized?
In the third and final step, explain your new resolve going forward, one in which you no longer intend to be passive when that person is insensitive or controlling. This last step gives the other person a heads-up that the relationship will be going forward on new terms. For instance, you might say, “In the future, if you dismiss how I feel, I will be reminding you that I am looking for understanding, not your criticism or advice. If you can’t do that, I might stop telling you things because it’s too hard to try to be heard.”
If that seems like a lot of words, just think of how many unspoken words crowd your mind for days after an episode with an insensitive person. Using this exercise to speak plainly and honestly about your feelings takes a tiny fraction of time and a miniscule amount of words compared to how many thoughts and words go into your silent mental suffering.
By imagining and practicing these new actions of self-expression, you improve your ability to be real and speak your mind with other people. You will feel the difference once you claim out loud your right to be treated considerately. Practicing this exercise will help clarify the healthier standards you want for real life interactions and get you ready to speak up. You’re the only one who can defend your feelings, and toward that end, practicing safe and imaginary scenarios will make you much more comfortable speaking your mind.